Director Rian Johnson has a habit of tinkering with well-worn formulas. His first film “Brick” was a phenomenal riff on film noir set in a modern-day high school. His television directorial debut on “Breaking Bad”—in a bottle episode called “Fly”—peeled away all of that show’s elaborate social engineering and deception to simply have the protagonist and deuteragonist engage in philosophical conversation.
This is all to say that Johnson’s latest film, “Looper,” is not about time travel. I mean, it is technically about time travel, but it’s about time travel in the same way that “Brick” was about high school or “Fly” was about cooking meth. Time travel in “Looper” is a catalyst and a conceit, but it is not the main concern. It is secondary to rumination on fate, memory, identity, sacrifice, and inevitability.
Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), one of the titular Loopers, living a hedonistic life in Kansas, circa 2044. Joe explains that the mob, circa 2074, sends victims back in time, where Loopers hit them with a shotgun blast to the chest and then dispose of a body that technically doesn’t exist.
Near-future Kansas is a smart choice of setting on Johnson’s part: recognizable but just different enough. Odd pipes and paneling jut out of cars that still travel on four wheels and silhouettes of vaguely futuristic helicopters dot the horizon. In the city, the corporatocratic aesthetic of “Blade Runner” is just beginning to dominate the skyscrapers. Outside the city, however, the land is populated by sprawling agriculture and middle-of-nowhere diners serving burnt coffee.
But what exactly is a Looper? Eventually, the mob of the future ties up loose ends and protects itself by sending older hitmen 30 years back in time to be killed by their younger selves. Upon “closing their loop,” the hitmen recieve their pension. This system is upended when an older version of Joe (Bruce Willis) shows up in 2044 but manages to avoid execution. This is called “letting your loop run,” Joe explains, and the consequences are brutal, as illustrated in an ingenious, nightmarish, and tautly-edited sequence that occurs near the start of the film.
In the film’s second act, the two Joes split up. Old Joe embarks the 2044 equivalent of “Would you kill Hitler if you could?” It’s muddy moral territory, as Willis’s character carries a strong motivation, but quickly becomes irredeemable. The sympathetic villain role is perfect for Willis, who has built an impressive action career nearly in spite of his mumbly cadence. He embodies both ruthless and vulnerable.
While Willis is on the hunt, Gordon-Levitt holes up in a farm on the outskirts, waiting for Old Joe to show up. There he meets Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon). While Blunt’s performance is solid, it is impossible to ignore Gagnon’s. Johnson has made the shrewd decision to base much of Cid’s presence around physical action—not saying anything that he can otherwise convey through body language. In a conversation between Gagnon and Gordon-Levitt, somehow Gordon-Levitt comes across as the less compelling actor.
This is not to say that Gordon-Levitt is not also outstanding. His gradual evolution from callous hitman to motivated defender is fascinating. Armed with a blunderbuss and prosthetics to augment his browline and nose in order to more closely resemble Willis, he makes the tension of waiting for the inevitable showdown compelling, much like Gary Cooper in “High Noon.”
The resemblance cannot be unintentional. Johnson’s cinephilia shines throughout “Looper” without overshadowing the film’s vibrant originality. At one point Johnson mirrors the singular moving shot of Chris Marker’s seminal work, “La Jetee,” also concerned with escaping a causality loop. The Loopers frequent a club named “La Belle Aurore,” a none-too-subtle shoutout to “Casablanca.” Bruce Willis even gets his own hero moment, striding down a dark alleyway, shooting from the hip. It calls to mind, well, vintage Bruce Willis.
Near the film’s beginning, Joe’s boss and Looper head honcho Abe-Jeff Daniels ridicules Joe’s fashion sense. “The movies you’re dressing like are just copying other movies,” he observes casually. But his assertion that film has become circuitous and stagnant is wrong. “Looper” builds upon previous films, rather than shallowly aping them. The film iterates upon their well-worn concepts to create something substantively original, inventive and exceptional. Ingenious, tightly directed, and occasionally funny, “Looper” is the rare film about time travel that transcends its genre.
—Staff writer Brian A. Feldman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org